Poetry, art, music? I'll take mine without the blood

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It was a remarkable day, said one commentator, which all the people involved would remember for the rest of their lives. "This is no occasion to croon softly," announced the song sheet handed out as they descended in their thousands from coaches, trains and private cars, "We are just a few yards from the West End, so let's really put on a show."

And they did, roaring out the words to Jerusalem, Men of Harlech, The Flower of Scotland and - no discrimination here - Danny Boy. (Killing Me Softly, by some oversight, was not included on the song sheet.)

"A Cornish singer", the Evening Standard reported, "sang of the forests and dales. A farmworker, his bronzed forearms bearing the muscular tattoo of a gambolling country rabbit, grasped a roll-up cigarette between fingernails blackened by years of country soil. His voice had a low, throaty animal quality, a sneering warmth that wound a velvet ribbon of sexuality over the outward coarseness of the man."

All right, I pinched the final sentence - but only the final sentence - from Cold Comfort Farm, the classic satire on the kind of Lawrentian rural fantasies which have sprawled luxuriantly across British newspapers (the prose style is catching) since Thursday's Countryside Rally in Hyde Park.

Even Stella Gibbons balked at giving her characters rampant bunnies on their rippling forearms, although I seem to recall that old Adam the cowman affected the "ripe provincial burr" which excited journalists claimed to have detected in Park Lane and its environs.

"Well, I would rather be at 'ome", admitted a whipper-in with the Devon and Somerset stag hounds, accompanied by a "wet-nosed hound" named Dairymaid, "but this thing `as to be said". Many of the protesters had tears in their eyes as they listened to the Labour peer, Lady Mallalieu, describe the unique place in her heart occupied by the practice of chasing and killing small animals: "Hunting is often described as a sport. But to those of us who have heard the music of the hounds, it is far more. It is our music, it is our poetry, it is our art, it is our pleasure."

Better than Homer, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Beethoven, Sylvia Plath, Caravaggio, George Eliot, Gwen John, the Chemical Brothers? No wonder they were willing to come from all corners of the kingdom to protest against the ban on hunting proposed by a backbench Labour MP, Mike Foster. What will they find to occupy their time, these sturdy country folk with their scorn for townie pastimes such as reading novels and listening to opera, if Labour's killjoys get their way? A great British tradition - "developed over centuries to blend with nature's ways/Conserving the land and plant and beast for year after year", as a song entitled Country Sports characterises it - is under threat and must be defended.

ONE of the most interesting features of the past couple of days has been the vocabulary employed by the hunting lobby. Its members are deeply attached to words such as "tradition", as in sentences like this one from Friday's Daily Telegraph: "The countryman will not submit unprotestingly to the loss of his [sic] traditional recreations." Yet on the sole occasion I encountered a hunt in full cry, it was equipped with the very latest technology.

As I got out of my car, alerted by the sight of a fox streaking across the road, I was approached by the driver of a four-wheeled vehicle who asked me sheepishly if I had noticed which way the animal went. An extraordinary feeling of relief surged through me as I abandoned my original plan of offering him my opinion of hunting, "It went that way," I lied, pointing in the wrong direction, and watched in amazement as he used his two-way radio to redirect the front riders.

On Thursday afternoon, a marshal at the Countryside Rally told me that the Beaufort - the pack with which Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles both ride - has its own private security force, concealed in vans, which emerges to take the "antis", as hunt saboteurs are disdainfully known, by surprise. This confirms my suspicion that "tradition" is the last resort of people who are in the business of defending a morally dubious activity, usually one they would like to impose on other sentient beings without their consent, on the feeble ground that it has been going on for a long time.

There are parts of the world in which clitoridectomy has been practised for generations; if this argument had any moral force, there is no reason why people shouldn't take to the streets in defence of the fine old tradition of female circumcision. Not to mention cock-fighting, bear-baiting and ducking stools for supposed witches.

TRAVELLING home on the Piccadilly line on Thursday evening, in the same carriage as a couple of men in Countryside Rally T-shirts, I reflected that over the years I have taken part in innumerable protests against British nuclear weapons, American missiles at Greenham Common, international abuses of human rights - serious subjects, in other words - and been denounced for my pains in right-wing newspapers. Suddenly, though, public protests are socially acceptable. "The only estate workers likely to be in trouble with Lady Jane Benson," the Daily Telegraph reported, were those who turned up for work at her family's 76,000-acre estate in Cumbria instead of at the rally. I draw two important lessons from this - never set out on a demonstration without rubbing soil under your fingernails. And make sure to carry a ferret.

TURNING to weightier matters, Janet Street-Porter followed in the footsteps of the Princess of Wales last week, sending much of the contents of her wardrobe for sale at Christie's. The lots include a ghastly Zandra Rhodes punk outfit, complete with safety pins and fake tears, and a "circular coat of peach felt, covered in snail designs", also by Rhodes.

Why do women put themselves through the ordeal of exposing their fashion mistakes in this way? Most of us prefer to get rid of such aberrations quietly, without drawing the attention to our lapses in taste. But a trend has been set. I fear that those cash-strapped followers of fashion, Princess Michael of Kent and the Duchess of York, cannot be far behind.

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